Muktinath and the Muktikshetra in Mustang
The holy water from Gandaki river gushing out of the 108 water spouts are said to cleanse the devotees of their sins and set them on a path to salvation. The waters are sacred to Buddhists as well and it’s called ‘Chumig Gyatsa’ in Tibetan language meaning “a hundred springs”.
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The Muktinath pilgrimage
The Himalayas are believed to be terrestrial dwelling place of saints and the home of the gods. The Muktinath temple situated at an attitude more than 3,700 meters in Mustang district of Nepal is an important pilgrimage site for both Hindus and Buddhists. The high-altitude setting of the site, cold weather conditions and rough roads along the way make it difficult for pilgrims who make the journey on foot along the Kali Gandaki River. Muktinath is made of two words, “mukti” meaning salvation and nath meaning “lord”. Hence, the shrine is perceived as the “Lord of salvation”. It is believed that bathing in the holy waters from the 108 taps of Muktinath will cleanse the sins committed by people leading them to salvation. It is significant geographically as well because of the nearby holy Gandaki River, which is considered as the source of the Shaligram, (the fossilized shells believed to be Lord Vishnu).
The Muktinath Temple
Located at the foot of Thorang La Mountain pass, the three- tiered, pagoda-style temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. Hindu devotees call the temple Muktikshetra (the land of salvation). It is believed that Lord Vishnu appeared in Muktinath and his sculpture is of divine origin.
Muktinath is one of the Swayam Vyakta Kshetras (sacred temples where Sri Vishnu is said to have self-manifested) alongside Sri Ranganatha swamy temple, Tirupati Balaji temple, Tirumala Bhoovaraha Swamy temple, Sri Vara Mangai temple, Varaha temple and Naimisharanya. Although it is a Vaishnava shrine, devotees of Lord Shiva also travel to Muktinath and consider it as an important pilgrimage destination such as Kedarnath, Badrinath and Amarnath. Thousands of devotees undertake the rigorous journey on foot to reach the scared place. It takes about 6 hours to hike from Jomsom to Kagbeni. However, one can also take a jeep ride from Jomsom market then hike up hill for about 30 minutes. Those who are unable to hike can enjoy the horse ride 3700 meters above sea level.
The 108 springs
Taking a dip in the holy pond known as Mukti Kunda is essential for the pilgrims as it is believed that it removes negative karma. Another thing the devotees do before visiting the shrine is take a holy bath in the 108 water spouts known as Mukti Dhara. The holy water from Gandaki river gushing out of the 108 bull shaped water spouts are said to cleanse the devotees of their sins and set them on a path to salvation. The waters are equally sacred to Buddhists and it is called ‘Chumig Gyatsa’ in Tibetan language meaning “a hundred waters”. It is believed to be one of the 24 tanric places in Buddhism.
Muktikshetra in Buddhism
Muktinath is a great example of religious harmony in Nepal. The presence of a Buddhist nun and a Hindu priest in the temple illustrate how Buddhism and Hinduism co-exist here.
In Mahayana Buddhism, the idol of the god is believed to be Bodhistava Lokesvara (Avalokiteshvara), the lord of compassion. In Tibetan Buddhism, Muktikshetra is a place where Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) considered as the founder and protector of Tibetan Buddhism, visited and meditated. It is believed that he introduced Buddhism to Tibet after he visited the area. Many Buddhists travel all the way from Tibet to pay homage to Padmasambhava.
The Jwala Mai or the “Salame- bar Dolamebar Gompa”
Muktikshetra is also home to a sacred flame burning since time immemorial known as Jwala Mai (the goddess of fire). Pilgrims who travel to Muktinath visit the Jwala Mai, the fire temple built above an underground water spring to see the miraculous unwavering fire. The natural gas present in the spring emerges beside the shrines in the temple, giving the impression of water on fire. Hindus believe that it was a place where Lord Brahma known as the creator set fire on the water. The Buddhists call the temple, “Salame- bar Dolamebar Gompa”, the temple of the miraculous fire. There are idols of Avalokiteshvara, Manjushree and Vajrapani inside the temple.
Shaligram stones are exclusively found in the riverbed and banks of the Kali Gandaki River. Shaligram is worshipped as a representation of Lord Vishnu just like the Shiva lingam is worshipped as Lord Shiva himself. Shaligrams are fossils of ammonite shells which is associated with Lord Vishnu and resemble Shankha (conch shell), a sacred emblem of Lord Vishnu used as a trumpet during Hindu rituals and festivals. Many travellers come to Mustang from different part of the world, just to get a Shaligram stone.
Kagbeni is another scared place for both Hindus and Buddhists. The village located in the Varagung Muktikshetra rural municipality is about 12 kilometres away from the Muktinath temple. Many Hindu pilgrims stop at Kagbeni a day before going to Muktinath. They start their trek from Jomsom to Kagbeni, where the Jhong river meets with the holy the Kali Gandaki, then to Muktinath which takes around 12 hours. The devotees perform Shraddha, (the rituals performed to remember the deceased family member) and offer Pinda (offerings made to the one’s ancestors as part of funerary rites) in Kagbeni hoping the souls of their loved ones get Mokshya (liberation or release) from the cycle of life and death. Buddhists visit the place because there are number of monasteries located in Kagbeni.